Friday, April 26 2024 9:50

Brandywine Stories: West Chester’s Shipwrecked Entrepreneur

Written by Malcolm Johnstone

How disaster changed William Everhart's life

Loss of the Packet Ship Albion, engraving by Cornelius Tiebout after Thomas Birch, c. 1823
William Everhart. Courtesy of the Chester County History Center

On April 1, 1822, William Everhart, a 37- year-old Chester County businessman, stepped onto the packet ship Albion in New York harbor as it was preparing to set sail for Liverpool. He assumed it would be a business trip like many he’d made before. Under the command of Captain John Williams, the Albion departed New York blessed with a “sweet and pleasant gale,” plus 25 crew members and 29 passengers. For the next three weeks, it would be smooth sailing, although Everhart would suffer sea sickness during much of the voyage.

Packet ships were a relatively new approach to crossing the Atlantic. Each ship set sail on the first day of the month and would carry cargo, passengers and mail packets — thus the name. The Albion began as a packet ship in 1818. Until 1822 no packet ship had ever been lost at sea.

By April 21, the Albion had reached the coast of southern Ireland on schedule. But by that afternoon it had met with thick fog and strong winds, which resulted in two of the sails being damaged. The crew quickly went to work repairing the damage and prayed they’d seen the worst of the storm. But by nightfall giant waves pummeled the ship. Six crew members and a passenger were washed overboard as the ship became uncontrollable. Adding to the passengers’ terror, the lower decks began to fill with sea water, forcing Everhart and others to the upper deck.

Shortly after midnight, the beam of Old Head at Kinsale lighthouse was spotted. Located in the south of Ireland, the light brought both hope for survival and futility of action as crew members found themselves powerless to control their vessel.

At dawn Everhart and the remaining crew saw they’d been carried into a shallow Irish bay framed by rocky cliffs. Despite feeling physically drained, Everhart and a few others made it to one of the cliffs, although it was too steep to climb. The storm continued to claim others from the ship.

Having spotted the wreck, nearby residents used ropes to pull Everhart and the remaining survivors to safety. Of the 54 crew and passengers that set sail on the fateful voyage, only eight lived to tell the tale: six crew members and two passengers.

It was a few months before Everhart could make it back to Chester County, where he met first with his young family, including his wife Rebecca Matlack. Yes, it was a terrible experience, but he suffered no great physical injuries. And, yes, when his chances of survival were most desperate, he thought of his family for comfort. And, yes, he prayed.

Soon after arriving home, Everhart became a local celebrity when The Village Record, a popular West Chester newspaper, interviewed him and published a detailed account of the tragedy. It left no details to the imagination.

Everhart’s mansion. Greenhouse structures on left, Everhart’s personal library building on right. Courtesy of Joe Liberato & Richard Meadows

And soon, William Everhart was back working at his family business. He’d opened his first shop years before in Pughtown, importing and selling wares such as fine cloth, clothing, eyeglasses, medicine and liquor. His success led him to open more shops in Tredyffrin, West Goshen, West Whiteland and finally West Chester.

Always looking for new business opportunities, Everhart purchased the 102-acre Wollerton Farm in West Chester in 1828. It stretched from what’s now the corner of Market Street and Wilmont Mews to the Borough’s western boundary at Bradford Avenue. Everhart built streets he named after West Chester notables and began developing individual lots for homes. This essentially doubled the size of West Chester and ultimately made Everhart the richest man in West Chester.

In 1830, Everhart kicked off the development with his own family mansion at 121 West Miner Street, where it remains today. In 1833, he constructed West Chester’s first true office building at 28 West Market Street. Designed by William Strickland, it was the tallest non-government structure in West Chester for many years, and it’s known today as the Lincoln Building. Then in 1835, Everhart opened the Mansion House Hotel on the southeast corner of Market and Church Streets, the “finest hotel outside Philadelphia” until it was demolished in the 1970s.

First Presbyterian Church in West Chester from a pre-1923 postcard

Everhart’s experiences gave him a newfound appreciation for religion. Upon meeting Reverend William Stevens, a Presbyterian preacher who gave sermons at the West Chester Courthouse in the early 1830s, Everhart became an avid supporter. Since both men agreed Presbyterians in West Chester needed a physical church, Everhart offered a suitable lot in his development, conveniently located across the street from his mansion. The church opened in January 1834 and was the first of several local commissions of architect Thomas U. Walter, designer of the West Chester Courthouse and the iconic dome of the U.S. Capitol Building.

His religious devotion also led Everhart to play an active role in the abolition of slavery. He served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives where, on May 19, 1854, he delivered his only speech, staunchly condemning the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which expanded slavery. “It does not merely produce a present special evil, but it aims to establish a system of slavery propagandism, which requires the revival of an atrocious traffic that all Christendom considers worse than murder,” he stated.

Entrepreneur, developer and abolitionist, William Everhart’s legacy also includes the popular park in the southwest quadrant of the Borough.

Everhart Park

Scene from Everhart Park. Horace Pippin, The Park Bench (Man on a Bench), 1946. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The legacy of William Everhart will be forever reflected in Everhart Park, bounded by Minor, Union and Brandywine Streets in the southwest quadrant of West Chester. Each day its 10 acres provide enjoyment for residents and visitors alike.

Originally part of the 102-acre Wollerton Farm and called Everhart Grove, it was donated to the Borough of West Chester in 1905 by Dr. Isaiah Everhart (William’s nephew, who had inherited the parcel) to be a municipal park. This was West Chester’s second park, established after Marshall Square in the northeast quadrant.

Originally used as an English Commons, it hosted everything from abolitionist and temperance rallies to family picnics. Eventually, the rocky and hilly area with a marsh and streams began seeing improvements. In 1909, the Everhart Fountain was moved from Market Street into the park. Later an octagonal gazebo that spanned the stream was built, along with a playground, drinking fountains, benches (including the red Pippin bench), tables, walkways and a public restroom. The park contained about 600 trees, including a line of dogwood trees planted in 1935 along a central walkway.

Today, the Friends of Everhart Park continue to care for this community gathering spot, along with support from the Borough. Recently, a labyrinth was installed to allow visitors “a quiet walk for contemplation,” plus an upgraded children’s playground.

Each year, West Chester Parks & Recreation hosts art camps, the May Day Festival of the Arts, an eight-week summer camp and the Turks Head Music Festival there.

Malcolm Johnstone is the Community Engagement Officer for Arts, Culture and Historic Preservation for the Cultural Alliance of Chester County, an initiative of the Chester County Community Foundation. His column raises awareness of Chester County’s rich heritage as we journey to 2026: the year the U.S. celebrates the 250th anniversary of our nation’s independence.

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